Searching for bargain freedom

March 16, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

LOOKING UP briefly from the all-American task of car shopping, I noticed we may be on the verge of war - with our democracy.

Dictators and the war on terrorism, we are told, oblige us to accept the erosion of civil liberties: holding people in secret, for example. These limits would come in a proposal called Patriot Act II. Is such a thing Orwellian or prudent?

I had succeeded for a while in avoiding such questions. There's a lot to do on the car front: scanning the big color ads, running through Autotrader.com, Carmax.com and Cars.com, and reading Consumer Reports.

I wonder, though, if I should be clicking on fearandloathing.com. Am I in denial, distracting myself from reality? Is it still OK to ask questions?

Colleagues and talk-show callers say they haven't been able to sleep as they contemplate our first pre-emptive war. Most of their worry has gone in this direction: There's no casus belli and the president's trying to invent one. It is complicated. Maybe there is a case, but this president can't make it.

Sends you right back to repair histories, resale ratings and whether Car A or B would be a more inviting target for thieves.

I did break away one recent evening when friends invited me to a lecture on the health of our system. The speaker, Jamin B. Raskin, has written a book called Overruling Democracy: The Supreme Court vs. the American People. A professor of constitutional law at American University, Mr. Raskin spoke at a forum convened by the Public Justice Center. Up to 60 people turned out to hear Mr. Raskin suggest that while we are planning to impose democracy on whatever is left of postwar Iraq, we ought not to overlook potential deficits in our own democracy.

Laws passed or contemplated to fend off terrorism do not represent an altogether new departure from democratic principles, he argues. Conservative judicial activism has reversed the liberal record associated with the Warren court, undermining decisions that ran toward the rights of accused criminals and the inclusion of women and minorities whose rights had been denied. So-called separate but equal education - compulsory segregation, Mr. Raskin called it - was the law of the land until 1954 and Brown vs. Board of Education.

Now, he said, the Rehnquist court has "sucker punched" the Brown decision, ruling that public education of the same quality in every location is not guaranteed by the Constitution. If true, that finding would tend to nullify the Thornton Commission's $1.3 billion effort to equalize spending from classroom to classroom across Maryland. Hope no one notices.

In a related ruling, the high court declared: "The equal protection clause of the Constitution does not protect the right of all citizens to vote, but rather the right of all qualified citizens to vote." Who decides who is qualified? What is needed, Mr. Raskin says, is a constitutional amendment that unequivocally guarantees the right to vote. Do we have a democracy otherwise?

Mr. Raskin says at least 175,000 Florida votes went uncounted in the 2000 presidential election because considering them after the fact might allow subjectivity into the equation. Every local election judge couldn't possible apply the same, unwavering standard, the high court ruled. So nine Supreme Court justices elected a president. Was Florida an unavoidable aberration or evidence of systemic malfunction?

Mr. Raskin observed that the high court's one-person, one-vote ruling had been turned on its head long before Florida. Perversely, it transferred immense voting power to elected officials who preside over the population-balancing in election districts; with computers and voter lists, they draw in their party's friends, push out their enemies: one pol, one guaranteed victory. Why vote?

Then came comments. One man said the high court's conclusion that money is speech allows corporate oligarchs to buy the government.

A young woman, who said her father had been a political prisoner in Peru, worried that Americans still have no visceral understanding of freedom's cost. She wasn't accusing anyone of anything. It was more a lamentation.

So, lots to think about while browsing for creampuffs.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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